Excerpt: Chapter 1

Please enjoy these excerpts from White Pearl and I

I once read that every single pearl evolves from a central core. This core is simply an irritant — a fragment of a shell or fishbone, a grain of sand. To protect itself from this irritant, the oyster secretes multiple layers of nacre, which form a beautiful pearl.  I think of this process of my grandmother, whose name is White Pearl. She experienced some very difficult events in her life that I will share with you in this book. Despite it all, she became one of the rarest and most beautiful of pearls.

Chapter 1: An Innocent Trip to a Local Bakery

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for ‘danger’; the other for ‘opportunity.’ In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”
– John F. Kennedy

It all started with a loaf of bread that didn’t even exist. It was early afternoon in Leningrad, a freezing winter day in December 1991 that felt more like night. Everything was dark gray – the sky, the buildings, the people’s moods. Another gloomy day, I thought, pulling my scarf to cover my chin and nose from the cold wind, which was blowing into my face so hard that I could not keep my eyes open. I was standing in line at the bakery for the third day in a row. The previous two days, after I had waited for hours, the owner had reluctantly ducked outside the door to announce, “There won’t be a bread delivery. You might as well go home.” The bakery was the size of the kitchen in my apartment, with one counter for the cash register and bare shelves that should have been filled with baked goods. By the register, below the sign for sahar (sugar), sat a few lonely brown bags empty of sugar. The scarcity of bread, potatoes, and vodka was maddening. Milk, cheese, meat, and sugar became difficult to find in stores. Soaps and toothpastes, shampoos and razor blades vanished from store shelves.

To be a resident of Leningrad, you had to have a propiska (a record of place of residence). The propiska system was similar to the czarist internal passport system used to control population movements in the Russian Empire. If I wanted to move to Moscow, I needed a propiska in Moscow to be a legal resident there. Yet becoming a legal resident is still not easy, even in Russia in today’s free market, when people cannot only buy apartments but can also build homes and castles.

I read that the Bolsheviks abolished the passport system right after the October Revolution, but Joseph Stalin reinstated it in December 1932. When I still lived in Russia, you needed a valid propiska stamp in your passport in order to get a job, get married, or receive medical treatments, which were free for all citizens. This may be different now, but back then, if you didn’t have your propiska, you didn’t receive ration coupons, either. Each month, my ration coupons allowed me to buy two bars of soap, a pound of butter, a pound of any kind of meat, and one box of detergent. I didn’t dare to lose them. I hand washed all of my clothes because we didn’t have a washing machine. I washed my clothes, towels, and bedding and hung them to dry on the balcony.

Read Chapter 2 Excerpt

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